Jahlil Okafor, Frank Kaminsky among big men you need to know in the NCAA tournament

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When it comes to the NCAA tournament guards tend to get most of the attention, and that’s understandable. They have the ball in their hands more often than any of the front court positions, meaning that when the game’s on the line a guard will be the one making the important decisions.

However in order for a team to be successful they also need some skill in the front court, with the majority of recent national champions having at least one high-level big they can call upon. Below are ten big men who will have a significant impact on the tournament.

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1. Jahlil Okafor (Duke): When doubled Okafor (17.7 ppg, 9.0 rpg) has improved at attacking such situations as the season’s progressed, so much so that some teams down the stretch simply decided to use one player to defend Okafor in order to keep that from happening. Okafor’s going to be key on both ends, as Duke will need him to be better defensively than he’s been for most of the season if they’re to play deep into the tournament.

2. Frank Kaminsky (Wisconsin): Kaminsky’s been right there with Okafor in the national Player of the Year discussions and rightfully so, as the senior is one of the most unique matchups in college basketball. Kaminsky (18.2 ppg, 8.0 rpg) can score inside, and he’s also a big man who’s comfortable playing on the perimeter.

3. Willie Cauley-Stein (Kentucky): The first of two Kentucky big men on this list, Cauley-Stein (9.3 ppg, 6.4 rpg) is the best defender in college basketball. His ability to defend anyone on the floor despite being a 7-footer allows Kentucky to simply switch ball screens and not even worry about Cauley-Stein.

4. Bobby Portis (Arkansas): While Cauley-Stein has been on the receiving end of a lot of praise this season, and rightfully so, Portis was the coaches’ choice for SEC Player of the Year. Averaging 17.5 points and 8.6 rebounds per game, the sophomore is capable of scoring both inside and out for the Razorbacks. (Note: Portis was omitted in a posting error earlier.)

5. Karl-Anthony Towns (Kentucky): Towns (9.7 ppg, 6.7 rpg, 2.4 bpg) combines with Cauley-Stein to form the best interior tandem in the country. The freshman isn’t the all-around defender that Cauley-Stein is but he’s been good, and in addition to being a solid post scorer Towns is also shooting nearly 82 percent from the foul line.

6. Georges Niang (Iowa State): Niang (15.5 ppg, 5.4 rpg, 3.5 apg) is one of the cogs that get the Iowa State offense going, as he can score both inside and out for the Cyclones. Niang’s shooting nearly 47 percent from the field and 40.2 percent from three, and his ability to create plays for himself and others helps Iowa State produce the spacing and ball movement that makes them so tough to defend.

READ MORE: Ranking the field | Eight teams that can win | Perfect bracket pool

7. Brandon Ashley (Arizona): Ashley’s been on fire of late for the Wildcats, averaging 19 points and nearly seven rebounds in the team’s last five games. Sure enough, his improved play has been a factor in Arizona playing its best basketball of the season. Ashley (12.3 ppg, 5.4 rpg) missed out on last year’s tournament with a foot injury, and his absence ultimately proved to be too difficult for Arizona to overcome.

8. Kyle Wiltjer (Gonzaga): Wiltjer (16.7 ppg, 6.0 rpg) has been a major addition for the Bulldogs, as his ability to score both inside and out has given Gonzaga a dimension in the front court that they lacked a season ago. And his ability to spend time on the perimeter is aided by the presence of fellow big men Przemek Karnowski and Domantas Sabonis.

9. Montrezl Harrell (Louisville): With the rest of Louisville’s front court being extremely young, Harrell’s been asked to carry the load inside for Rick Pitino’s team. The junior’s averaging 15.7 points and 9.5 rebounds per game, with the latter number being double what Mangok Mathiang (4.7 rpg) has produced on the glass.

10. Rico Gathers Sr. (Baylor): Given Gathers’ build the uninitiated tend to rush to discuss his merits as a football prospect (even though he’s never played organized football). But to do that is to diminish Gathers’ production on the court, as he’s averaging 11.7 points and 11.6 rebounds per game. If he can continue on that track, especially when it comes to the rebounding, Baylor can put together another successful NCAA tournament.

11. Seth Tuttle (Northern Iowa): Tuttle’s made his way onto multiple national Player of the Year candidate lists and with good reason, as he’s the leader of a Northern Iowa team that enters the tournament ranked in the top ten of the national polls. UNI’s leading scorer and rebounder, Tuttle’s shooting nearly 62 percent from the field and while he doesn’t attempt many of them he’s shooting nearly 42 percent from three.

Six More to Keep in Mind

  • Perry Ellis (Kansas)
  • Anthony Gill (Virginia)
  • Nigel Hayes (Wisconsin)
  • Jordan Mickey (LSU)
  • Larry Nance Jr. (Wyoming)
  • JayVaughn Pinkston (Villanova)

Louisville challenges NCAA over recruiting allegations

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Louisville has refuted NCAA allegations against its men’s basketball program in the wake of a federal corruption scandal, requesting that the highest-level violation be reclassified.

The university also is challenging that former coach Rick Pitino failed to promote an atmosphere of compliance in his program.

Louisville filed a 104-page response last week to the Notice Of Allegations sent to the school in May. The document stated that college sports’ governing body seeks to ignore wire fraud convictions against several people involved in the scheme – including a former Adidas executive – by suggesting they were representing its athletic interests. Louisville’s contract with the apparel maker was a standard sponsorship agreement rather than a promotional deal, the response added.

“This argument is as novel as it is wrong,” the school wrote in its response. “Even if an institution has some responsibility for the conduct of its suppliers, that responsibility plainly does not extend to acts of fraud perpetrated against the institution itself.”

Louisville also seeks to have several second-tier violations reclassified even lower. The NCAA has until Nov. 15 to respond with the school responding 15 days after before a decision is made whether the case will proceed through the traditional Committee on Infractions or Independent Accountability Review Process (IARP).

The NCAA’s Notice of Allegations states that Louisville committed a Level I violation, considered the most severe, with an improper recruiting offer and extra benefits along with several lesser violations. Those lesser violations also include Pitino failing to promote an atmosphere of compliance.

The NCAA notice completed a two-year investigation following a federal corruption probe of college basketball announced in September 2017. Louisville acknowledged its involvement in the federal investigation related to the recruitment of former player Brian Bowen II. Pitino, who’s now coaching Iona, was not named in the federal complaint and has consistently denied authorizing or having knowledge of a payment to a recruit’s family.

Louisville has previously indicated it would accept responsibility for violations it committed but would contest allegations it believed were not supported by facts. The school also noted corrective measures taken in the scandal’s immediate aftermath, such as suspending and then firing Pitino and athletic director Tom Jurich.

Louisville also dismissed the NCAA’s contention that former Adidas executive James Gatto and amateur league director Merl Code represented the school while funneling illegal payments to recruits at several schools.

“The enforcement staff’s remaining allegations lack factual support and overread the relevant Bylaws,” the response stated, “and rest on the erroneous contention that the conspirators were representatives of the University’s athletics interests.

“For these reasons and others set forth, the panel should reject the enforcement staff’s dramatically overbroad theory, and classify this case as involving a Level II-Mitigated violation.”

Bubbles brewing with season on horizon

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INDIANAPOLIS — With the coronavirus pandemic already forcing changes for college basketball, a bubble may be brewing in Indianapolis.

Indiana Sports Corp. released a 16-page proposal Friday that calls for turning the city convention center’s exhibition halls and meeting rooms into basketball courts and locker rooms. There would be expansive safety measures and daily COVID-19 testing.

The all-inclusive price starts at $90,000 per team and would cover 20 hotel rooms per traveling party, testing, daily food vouchers ranging from $30-$50 and the cost of game officials. Sports Corp. President Ryan Vaughn said the price depends on what offerings teams or leagues choose.

“The interest has been high,” Vaughn said. “I think as conferences figure out what conference and non-conference schedules are going to look like, we’re we’re a very good option for folks. I would tell you we’ve had conversations with the power six conferences, mid-majors, it’s really kind of all over the Division I spectrum.”

Small wonder: The NCAA this week announced teams could start ramping up workouts Monday, with preseason practices set to begin Oct. 14. Season openers, however, were pushed back to Nov. 25 amid wide-ranging uncertainty about campus safety and team travel in the pandemic.

There is already scrambling going on and some of the marquee early-season tournaments have already been impacted.

The Maui Invitational will be moved from Hawaii to Asheville, North Carolina, with dates still to be determined and organizers clear that everyone involved “will be in a bubble environment that limits their movement and interaction outside the venue.” The Batttle 4 Atlantis has been canceled. The Cancun Challenge will be held in Melbourne, Florida, not Mexico.

More changes almost certainly will be coming, including what to do with the ACC-Big Ten Challenge.

“I think we’re past the guesswork on whether we play 20 conference games or more than that,” Purdue coach Matt Painter said Friday. “We’re trying to get everybody set like in terms of MTEs (multi-team events), figuring out when to play the ACC-Big Ten challenge.”

Painter, who was part of the NCAA committee that recommended how to start the season, noted part of the uncertainty stems from differing protocols imposed by campus, city and state officials.

In Indianapolis, Vaughn believes the convention center, nearby hotels, restaurants and downtown businesses, many within walking distance of the venue, could safely accommodate up to 24 teams. The 745,000-square foot facility would feature six basketball courts and two competition courts.

Anyone entering the convention center would undergo saliva-based rapid response testing, which would be sent to a third-party lab for results. Others venues could be added, too, potentially with more fans, if the case numbers decline.

If there is a taker, the event also could serve as a dry run for the 2021 Final Four, also slated for Indy.

“It’s not going to hurt,” Vaughn said. “I can tell you all the planning we’re doing right now is the same for a Final Four that’s been scheduled here for any other year. But it would be nice to have this experience under our belt to see if it can be done.”

Maui Invitational moving to North Carolina during pandemic

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ASHEVILLE, N.C. — The Maui Invitational is moving to the mainland during the coronavirus pandemic.

One of the premier preseason tournaments on the college basketball schedule, the Maui Invitational will be played at the Harrah’s Cherokee Center in downtown Asheville, North Carolina.

Dates for the tournament announced Friday have yet to be finalized. The NCAA announced Wednesday that the college basketball season will begin Nov. 25.

This year’s Maui Invitational field includes Alabama, Davidson, Indiana, North Carolina, Providence, Stanford, Texas and UNLV.

All teams, staff, officials, and personnel will be in a bubble environment that limits their movement and interaction outside the venue.

Burton eligible at Texas Tech after 2 seasons at Wichita State

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LUBBOCK, Texas — Junior guard Jamarius Burton has been granted a waiver from the NCAA that makes him eligible to play this season for Texas Tech after starting 52 games the past two seasons for Wichita State.

Texas Tech coach Chris Beard announced the waiver Thursday, which came five months after Burton signed with the Big 12 team.

Burton has two seasons of eligibility remaining, as well as a redshirt season he could utilize. He averaged 10.3 points and 3.4 assists per game as a sophomore at Wichita State, where he played 67 games overall.

Burton is from Charlotte. He helped lead Independence High School to a 31-1 record and the North Carolina Class 4A state championship as a senior there.

NCAA season set to open day before Thanksgiving

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The NCAA men’s and women’s basketball season will begin on Nov. 25, the day before Thanksgiving.

The Division I Council voted Wednesday to push the start date back from the originally scheduled Nov. 10 as one of several precautions against the spread of coronavirus.

The later start date coincides with the decision most schools made to send students home from Thanksgiving until January out of concern about a potential late-fall and early-winter flareup of COVID-19. Closed campuses could serve as a quasi bubble for players and provide a window for non-conference games.

The maximum number of regular-season games has been reduced from 31 to 27. The minimum number of games for consideration for the NCAA Tournament was cut from 25 to 13.

Teams can start preseason practices Oct. 14 but will be allowed to work out 12 hours per week beginning Monday.

No scrimmages against other teams or exhibitions are allowed.

In other action, the council voted to extend the recruiting dead period for all sports through Dec. 31. In-person recruiting is not allowed during a dead period, though phone calls and other correspondence are allowed.

The men’s and women’s basketball oversight committees had jointly recommended a start date of Nov. 21, which would have allowed for games to be played on the weekend before Thanksgiving. The council opted not to do that to avoid a conflict with regular-season football games.

The council is scheduled to meet again Oct. 13-14 and could delay the start date and change other pieces of the basketball framework if circumstances surrounding the virus warrant.